He was on the Toronto Maple Leafs bench for all three trips down heartbreak lane, beginning with the 18-wheeler off the cliff in 2012 and ending with this season’s disastrous 12 losses in 14 games collapse to end the year.
The first time it happened, Scott Gordon feared for his job, as Ron Wilson was fired and a new coach (Randy Carlyle) was brought in.
By the third, especially when Brendan Shanahan was hired as president late in the year, he knew it was over.
“When Brendan came in, I felt 100 per cent there was going to be a change,” Gordon said in a wide-ranging interview from his home in Atlanta, the only comments to date from any of the Leafs three assistant coaches who were fired last week. “And it was very likely that it could be all of us. I just had a feeling that that was going to happen.”
In all, Gordon spent three years in Toronto, with his first season under Wilson a similar situation where two assistant coaches had previously been shown the door.
A former NHL head coach – he spent two years in that role with the New York Islanders before the Leafs job – and long-time AHL head coach, Gordon was a quiet presence in the Leafs organization. A goaltender during his playing days with the Quebec Nordiques, he took a keen interest in the offensive side of the game and was typically in charge of Toronto’s power play, one of the organization’s few consistent strengths.
Fiercely loyal to Randy Carlyle, who survived last week’s purge, Gordon said he believes part of what led to this season’s collapse was simply a sense of complacency among the players.
After taking the Boston Bruins to Game 7 in the playoffs last spring and starting the season 10-4-0, he explained, the team never fully heeded their coaches’ message about the way they were winning games.
“We never were happy with the way we were playing,” Gordon said of the coaching staff, which was made up of Carlyle, Dave Farrish and Greg Cronin the last two seasons. “Whether we won or lost, we felt there was a concern there… “As coaches, we tried to address it and get the players to understand what we saw, but at the end of the day, they’ve got to go out and play.”
Gordon also felt losing Leo Komarov to the KHL in Russia hurt the Leafs considerably, as did injuries to Jonathan Bernier, Dave Bolland and Mark Fraser at various points during the year.
As for all the criticism the Leafs system took this season – primarily due to the fact they were badly outshot right from the start – Gordon felt some of it was warranted and some wasn’t, mentioning specifically that Carlyle’s relationship with young players like Jake Gardiner and Nazem Kadri wasn’t nearly as rocky as had been reported throughout the year.
“There’s this perception that Randy doesn’t like Jake Gardiner, and it’s comical,” Gordon said. “I can’t tell you how many times that Randy has said that the thought of trading Jake can’t even be discussed until he’s played 300 games [in the NHL].
“He personally thinks it takes 300 games for a defenceman to get to the point where you can make a decision on them.”
Despite how it all ended, Gordon has no regrets about coaching in Toronto, calling it one of the biggest thrills of his career. He hopes to catch on with another NHL team as an assistant coach or to helm his own AHL team in time for next season.
“I’ve been a hockey fan my whole life and part of the sport since I was three years old and I didn’t realize the magnitude of how passionate the people in Toronto were about their team,” Gordon said.
“Going into other buildings and seeing that half the crowd is cheering for us was amazing… I loved it and consider myself very lucky to have been there. It was awesome. It really was.”
What follows is an edited transcript of the interview with Scott Gordon:
Q. First of all, what’s your perspective on what went wrong this season?